With his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine yesterday, Japan's Prime Minister Abe just slapped across the face all of Japan's neighbors and all of those countries who think they are its allies.
A visit to Yasukuni by any Japanese leader is always problematic because the shrine has become a symbol of pre-war Japanese nationalism. The leaders who make these visits always say they are simply honoring those who have fallen in battle for their country, and they present Yasukuni to the outside world as the Japanese equivalent of America's Arlington National Cemetery. But the real message they send is one of affirmation of the principles of war-time Japan and of denial of the various war apologies made by Japan over the past sixty years.
Japan actually has a direct equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery -- Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery. It is where Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel laid wreaths during their recent visit to Japan. By going there instead of to Yasukuni, they were signaling that America does not accept the principles and the version of history that Yasukuni has come to symbolize, and that America cannot pay respect to Japan at Yasukuni.
Of course, one might think that Abe is just a bit slow in his mental perceptions and somehow missed the signal from Kerry and Hagel. But that cannot possibly be the case. The visit by the two secretaries was just the most recent in a series of visits by top U.S. officials who have explicitly explained to Abe and his top lieutenants that visits to Yasukuni are not helpful with regard to maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. On several occasions former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and other high ranking officials from the U.S. National Security Council and Department of Defense were specifically sent to Japan to warn Abe not to visit Yasukuni and not to make further statements such as the one he made in a Diet debate arguing that Japan had never invaded any other country.
In the past, such visits and statements have inevitably elicited harsh rebukes and criticism from South Korea and China. To some extent these have been dismissed or downplayed because they are seen more as (and sometimes are) domestic political maneuvers than as diplomatic statements. But in this case there are no grounds for dismissal or rationalization. South Korea and China have both understood exactly what Abe was doing and have made strong statements accordingly. What is less understandable is the U.S. reaction.
"Japan is a valued ally and friend. Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbors. The United States hopes that both Japan and its neighbors will find constructive ways to deal with sensitive issues from the past, to improve their relations and to promote cooperation in advancing our shared goals of regional peace and stability."
That was the statement issued yesterday by a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Tokyo . After what can only be described as a very public slap across the face of President Obama and the United States, America says it is "disappointed"? In fact, it is not even America that says this. It isn't a statement from the White House or the Department of State or the Department of Defense. It isn't even a statement from the new U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy. No, it is only a statement from a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Tokyo. Worse, it is a statement that subtly makes the cries of outrage from South Korea and China the equivalent of Abe's visit. Do you notice how the United States calls on "both Japan and its neighbors" to be constructive?
One must wonder at what stage of denial America's foreign policy elite has arrived. Why is Washington -- or should I say the American embassy in Tokyo -- talking about Abe exacerbating "tensions with Japan's neighbors"? What about tensions with America, the provider of Japan's nuclear umbrella and the guarantor of its supplies of oil and other critical materials? What about America not acting as if a public slap in the face from what it thinks of as its major ally in Asia is a minor matter with the neighbors?
The problem is that the orthodox American foreign affairs elite wants to defend Japan more than Japan wants to be defended. It wants to keep those bases in Okinawa and Yokusuke more than Japan, or at least Abe's Japan, wants them to be kept. It is American neo-imperialism that enables some of its putative allies to act irresponsibly.
Now is the time for some serious thought about the true nature of things in the Asia-Pacific region. More than forty years ago, President Nixon proposed the Guam doctrine after a swing through the area. Under this doctrine, the U.S. would pull its forces in Asia back from Korea, Okinawa, and Japan to Guam, Hawaii, and the U.S. west coast. It would still defend its Asian allies, but it would be the call of last resort rather than that of first resort. The allies would be expected to defend themselves to the fullest extent if they wanted also to be defended by the United States.
Whatever his faults, Nixon was no dummy when it came to foreign policy. Maybe Obama should pull up his predecessors' old files. If Abe wants to go back to pre-war Japan, Washington should not be shielding him from the wrath of his neighbors.
TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images